Does Doctrine Matter Anymore – To Pastors?

(Volume 22, Issue 4, July/August 2016)

What comes to your mind when you think of pastors and, especially, pastoral responsibilities?  The range of response could be from that of shepherds, administrators, CEOs, promoters, organizers, evangelists, and Bible teachers, among other options. Without discussing any of these roles at this point, I would suggest that few would see pastors as theologians.  Theologians reside at seminaries and other academic settings, not at churches.  While some pastors might be known as adequate, even excellent, expositors of the Scriptures, they most likely are not seen as theologians today.  This has not always been the case.

Some History

Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, in their fine little book The Pastor Theologian, Resurrecting an Ancient Vision, document that until the twelfth and thirteenth centuries it was pastors who were on the cutting edge theologically within Christianity.  Resisting the temptation to critique much of the theology prior to the Reformation, which often was leading the church in unbiblical directions, the fact remained that Christians looked to pastors for doctrinal formation and insight.  But with the rise of the university that began to change.  Universities, such as Bologna, Paris, Oxford and Cambridge consisted of “four faculties: medicine, law, philosophy, and theology – with canon law and theology given precedence in the early years.  The rise of the universities marks the first time the pastoral office begins to be eclipsed as the majority vocational home of theologians.”[1] At that point serious theological work increasingly shifted from the pulpit to the academy until the time of the Reformation when Protestant pastors began to recapture much of what had become the domain of the universities.  “During the two hundred years following the Reformation, clerical theologians within Protestantism emerge as a robust body of leading theologians, every bit the intellectual and theological equals of their university counterparts.”[2] One only need think of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, John Owen, and eventually men like Jonathan Edwards, to recognize that pastors more than held their own with professors at the universities during these years.

All this began to change in Europe with the rise of the Enlightenment which undermined the validity of Scripture and elevated reason and science to the authoritative role that the Bible once held. Scholars in the universities who were teaching the new “higher critical” understanding that dismissed the uniqueness of the Scriptures and stripped them of sacredness, intimidated the men in the pulpits. The pursuit of theological studies and development was confiscated by the university academians and a significant disconnect between them and local church pastors developed.  Ultimately pastors were either marginalized or convinced of their inadequacy, leaving the serious quest of doctrine to the university scholars.  In America the Enlightenment had some of the same effect on the churches, but other factors were in play as well.  During the eighteenth century it was not uncommon for budding pastors to receive much, if not all, of their theological and pastoral training in hands-on, internship-type programs as they worked alongside seasoned pastors who themselves were first-rate students of Scripture.  Hiestand and Wilson argue that there were three factors that significantly contributed to unraveling of this methodology and “the undermining of the pastor-theologian paradigm:”[3]

  • The urbanization and secularization of American culture with its resulting change of the dynamics of congregational life and structure.
  • An egalitarian impulse which called into question all learned professions. Gone were the days in which the pastor was seen as the expert on Scripture; everyone was now on equal footing when it came to biblical interpretation.  The Second Great Awakening fanned this egalitarian mentality, with its emphasis on emotions and experience, so that “in North America, a theological education was no longer a necessity – indeed, was often a liability – to a successful ministry career.”[4]
  • The founding of the evangelical divinity schools which gradually replaced the pastoral tutoring paradigm with institutional training. “By the mid-nineteenth century, the pastor theologian in North America had been replaced by the professor theologian.”[5]

Hiestand’s and Wilson’s assessment of this evolution is that, “Since the dawning of the Enlightenment and the vacating of theologians from pastorates, theology has become increasingly professionalized and thus ‘academic’ in ways not always relevant to the church.”[6] David Wells argues that this de-coupling of robust biblical study and teaching from the pastoral ministry has over time developed a new kind of leadership among pastors:

Gone is the older model of the scholar-saint, one who was as comfortable with books and learning as with the aches of the soul.  This was the shepherd who knew the flock, knew how to tend it, and Sunday by Sunday took that flock into the treasures of God’s Word.  This has changed.  In its place is the new “celebrity” style.  What we typically see now, Nancy Pearcey suggests, is the leader who works by manipulating the feelings of the audience, enhancing his own image with personal anecdotes, modeling himself after the CEO, and adopting a domineering management style.  He (usually) is completely results-oriented, pragmatic, happy to employ any technique from the secular world that will produce the desired results.[7]

The Need for Pastor-Theologians

Although it has become standard practice in modern times to leave the heavy theological lifting to scholars at the universities and seminaries freeing pastors to pursue more practical shepherding duties and administration, there are good reasons to challenge this pattern.  First, a few clarifications are in order.  Not every godly, sincere pastor is called to engage in serious theological pursuit.  Many have neither the giftedness nor inclination, not to mention time for such endeavors.  These individuals often serve the Lord and the church with incredible effectiveness and they should not feel second-rate or devalued in the cause of Christ.  Secondly, even the most theologically minded pastor is deeply thankful for those in the academy who have dedicated their lives to studies which a busy minister could never undertake.  I have read many books and journal articles dealing with important but complicated issues in which the authors have devoted months or years in research.  I do not know how often I have thanked the Lord for those who have the time and desire to do this kind of investigation, nor how many times I have thanked the Lord I can benefit from such study without having to do the work myself.  Academic scholars are a valuable and important part of the body of Christ and deserve our respect and appreciation.  Finally, there are different levels of theological involvement open to pastors and very few will have the time and energy, even if they have the ability, to match the efforts of the academic scholar. A couple of examples might prove insightful.  John Piper and D.A. Carson have written an interesting little volume entitled, The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor.[8] Whether one agrees with all of Piper’s theology or not, most would agree that he has been as theologically engaged as almost any pastor in recent times.  Yet, I dare say that his production and quality of work does not match that of Carson who devotes most of his time to research and writing.  Piper sets a high bar for pastors desiring to enter the theological arena, but there are limits to even the most brilliant pastor’s time, not to mention priorities.  And of course Piper, before he stepped down as senior pastor, was surrounded by a large staff and copious resources and was not the typical pastor, flying solo, involved in multiple aspects of a local church.  Another interesting case study is N. T. Wright who, for 16 years tried to balance his ecclesial duties (as a pastor and then a bishop in the Anglican Church) with his scholarly work. And while many hail Wright as one of the leading theologians of our times (despite his many errant doctrinal views), the works I have read by him fall seriously short of good scholarship. He is a master of erecting straw men, using anecdotal personal examples to support his theses, rather than biblical or even logical arguments, and drawing conclusions that are not warranted by the data he supplies.[9]  Wright has more recently left clerical duties to pursue full time academic efforts apparently recognizing his inability to do both effectively.  My point is that when even the best qualified pastors attempt theological engagement they need to be aware of their limitations.

Hiestand and Wilson, who are obviously serious about encouraging pastors to be theologians, see three distinct levels:[10]

  • Pastor as local theologian – These are shepherds who concentrate most, if not all, of their biblical studies and teaching within the confines of one local church. Pastors who take seriously this role will work hard toward biblically sound exegesis and exposition as well as pastoral care. They will be students of Scripture, who read widely, remain lifelong learners but whose influence will be primarily within the sphere of their church and perhaps a few peers. This is the level to which most pastors should aspire, as they carefully interpret and preach the Word aimed at the transformation of lives within their congregations (2 Tim 2:15).
  • Pastor as popular theologian – The popular theologian has a broader influence due primarily to taking the opportunity to write theology as well as “bridge the gap between the professional theological community and local church. The popular theologian translates academic theology down to other pastors and laity.”[11] Such men are not shying away from heavy and complicated theological issues, both ancient and contemporary, rather they are doing the hard work of making these issues understandable and applicable. Their first point of contact will no doubt be the local church they serve, but through writing and other opportunities, they are able to widen their scope and be influential to a larger audience.
  • Pastor as ecclesial theologian – “An ecclesial theologian is a theologian who bears shepherding responsibilities for a congregation and who is thus situated in the native social location that theology is chiefly called to serve; and the ecclesial theologian is a pastor who writes theological scholarship in conversation with other theologians, with an eye to the needs of ecclesial community.”[12] Chapter seven of The Pastor Theologian details eight characteristics of the ecclesial theologian, as one who stands shoulder to shoulder with the seminary scholar. Chapter eight offers ten strategies to develop ecclesial theologians as well.

While I deeply appreciate Hiestand’s and Wilson’s emphasis on and encouragement toward pastoral scholarship, and I believe they both are sorely needed as I will argue below, I believe that a small number should aspire to the role of an ecclesial theologian.  Precious few pastors have the time, expertise, or opportunities to be researching and writing theological or biblical materials at the high end of scholarship.  With rare exceptions, either their churches will suffer or their scholarship will.  But at the same time I believe that more pastors should take seriously their roles as students and teachers of Scripture and doctrine.

The Importance of Pastor-Theologians

The only purpose or mission statement we use at our church is a simple one: “Learning truth, living truth.”  We are firmly committed to the concept that robust biblical living must spring from the truth of God’s Word.  Many attempt to disconnect these two components of the Christian life with the apparent assumption that one may choose to know truth or live a vibrant spiritual life but not both.  This is faulty thinking at the very minimum.  If we take seriously the proclamation found in Romans 12:2 that we are “transformed by the renewing of our mind,” then the teachings found in Scripture become central to our spiritual development.  Why else would the Word spend so much time explaining God, describing humanity, pinpointing the problem of sin and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation, instructing us on how we are to live to the honor of God, and hundreds of other topics?  Christianity, in contrast to most religions, is distinguished by its focus on teaching truth.  When this is minimized, our faith is dumbed-down to sound-bites and bumper stickers.  It morphs into religious moralism or self-help programs or worse.  When pastors and elders do not take this seriously, when they major on helping people feel good about themselves or providing mechanisms to enable them to enjoy themselves, or find themselves, or please themselves, rather than teaching them to live for the glory of God (e.g. Psalm 115:1) and the enduring truth centered in Christ (e.g. 1 Cor 2:2), they deprive their people of the sustenance necessary to sustain their walk with God.  A steady diet of biblical truth is vital for spiritual health. The teaching of Scripture and theology then is not optional, it is foundational.  Unfortunately the majority of Christians today are malnourished.  They have little concept of doctrines pertaining to humanity or salvation or the importance and sufficiency of Scripture.  As a result they do not have the foundation of truth needed to make informed decisions on ethical issues or biblical insight for analyzing our times.  As David Wells comments, “We are called to see that the Church does not adapt its thinking to the horizons that modernity prescribes for it but rather that it brings to those horizons the powerful antidote of God’s truth. It is not the Word of God but rather modernity that stands in need of being demythologized.”[13]

John Piper is on target when he writes, “Ordinary folks in the pew need help understanding their Bible.  If the sheep did not need help understanding their Bibles, God would not have given shepherds who had to be apt to teach.”[14] If this is true, and I believe it is, then why is the pastor-theologian-teacher model so absent from many of our churches, while the CEO model appears to be all the rage?  Professor and author Dennis Johnson comments, “Pressures on pastors to market and manage church growth as entrepreneurs and CEOs produce pragmatism in the pulpit that is revealed in sermons ungrounded in biblical interpretation.”[15]  To be fair, it is a difficult time to attempt to be a theologically focused pastor. As Wells observes, “The reason theology is disappearing has little to do with the technical skills of the fine-tuners and much to do with the state of the church.”[16] Wells’ thesis is that pastors are being deceived by culture, allowing it to dictate the marching orders of church rather than challenging culture with sola scriptura.[17] As R. C. Sproul writes, “I think the greatest weakness in the church today is that almost no one believes that God invests His power in the Bible. Everyone is looking for power in a program, in a methodology, in a technique, in anything and everything but that in which God has placed it – His Word.”[18]

But there are other pressures as well, including pressure within the ministry to do almost anything else but study and teach the Scriptures.  As any minister knows, there is an endless list of demands upon his time.  As one pastor said, “Nothing runs in this church unless I run it.”  While that might be extreme for some, this statement fairly represents reality for many.  Bulletins need printing, curriculum ordered, teachers organized and trained, building issues addressed, young couples counseled, the sick visited and prayed with, letters written, missionaries contacted, concerts and ballgames of teens attended, funerals preached, websites updated and more.  Many of these things scream for attention, but the Bible sits patiently on the desk awaiting our return.  In addition, many pastors preach or teach several times a week which may not allow them much time for the serious kind of study and reflection they desire.  Add to all of this the fact that most pastors have families of their own which need their love and attention and it is easy to comprehend why not many see themselves in the role of pastor-theologian.

Three more deterrents to pastors fulfilling the role of theologian could be quickly mentioned.  First is the pressure for success, explicit or implied. In America, in particular, bigger is always better.  A big church is a great church, or so goes the common assumption. It is interesting that in the New Testament, with very few exceptions, numbers in regard to churches are not mentioned.  The implication, in the messages to the seven churches addressed in Revelation 2-3, is that some of the smaller churches pleased the Lord (e.g. Smyrna in 2:8-11), while the more impressive churches outwardly met with His disapproval (e.g. Laodicea in 3:14-21).  Still, it is hard to escape the feeling of failure when the church down the street is bursting at the seams and yours is barely limping by.  We try to console ourselves by being reminded that the Lord honors faithfulness which is not always rewarded with numerical success.  But it is hard to toil at teaching the Word to a few when others are reaching the masses with feel-good messages and entertaining programs. Secondly, many who desire to teach theology and meaty biblical truth feel they are force-feeding their people.  Christians have been fed theological junk food for so long that many have lost the appetite for truth. The pastor may labor hard to provide a biblically balanced theological diet only to discover that most of his people are more content with “fast food.”  Finally there is the danger of disconnect between theology and life.  Many men, right out of seminary, discover they have spent years studying answers to questions that no one is asking.  They have become proficient in Greek and Hebrew when their people are dealing with troubled teens and anxiety over dwindling bank accounts.  The relevancy of theology is put to the test at such times.

How to Become a Pastor-Theologian

Despite these detriments and challenges, the road toward being a pastor-theologian is one that needs to be traveled for, without clear teaching from Scripture, God’s people live in deception.  As Hiestand and Wilson state, “A chief task of the theologian is to peer beneath the surface and identify the mistaken beliefs that give rise to misplaced affections and subsequent erring ethics.”[19]  The alternative to sound biblical theology, in which people walk in truth to the glory of God, is walking in deception to the dishonor of God. Without clear biblical theology discipleship is not possible. Kevin Vanhoozer, in Faith Speaking Understanding, a book dedicated to the promotion of doctrine which is played out in the lives of God’s people, defines a disciple as “one who seeks to speak, act, and live in ways that bear witness to the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus Christ.[20] The distorted image of the theologian as one whose head is crammed with knowledge which is never put to good use, or worse, leads to arrogance and mean-spiritedness, is not the goal of anyone who knows Christ or Scripture.  As Vanhoozer writes, “Desire for God without doctrine is blind; doctrine without desire is empty.”[21] One of the hallmarks of old liberalism, which rose to prominence in the eighteenth through the early twentieth centuries, was the idea that theology and vibrant Christian life did not mix.  “Life not doctrine” became the mantra within the movement.  In modern times many evangelicals are echoing the same theme and ultimately the outcome will be the same – a Christendom which maintains a façade of authentic Christianity but gutted of biblical content.  Pastor-theologians must be on the cutting edge of stemming this tide wherever possible by presenting sound theology in understandable and applicable ways. They must do so first of all within the parameters of their local churches, but whenever possible they should seek to reach out to the body of Christ at large to magnify Christ and His truth.

What are some steps that the local church pastor, in the midst of the multitude of their other tasks and pastoral functions, can take to grow as theologians?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Schedule time for reading and study. All pastors devote much of their lives preparing sermons and Bible instruction, but relatively few set aside time for wider reading and study.  As with almost any discipline, from exercise to learning to play a musical instrument, carving out time for that discipline is essential.  For me personally, mornings work best.  Five mornings each week I dedicate approximately two hours to reading works that are unrelated to my sermon and teaching preparation.  This gives me a depth of understanding into a number of areas that would not happen otherwise.
  • Read widely. I am always reading two or three books at a time on a variety of subjects.  On my reading agenda I include theology (which might be systematic works as well as works on individual doctrines), Christian living, marriage and family, the church and church trends, contemporary issues, biographies, detailed studies of scriptural matters, theological journals, and church history.  In the evening, when I have available time, I will often read classical fiction, important nonfiction and even popular novels (mostly just for fun). My most recent evening reads were Unbroken, an intriguing true story of a World War II American military man captured by the Japanese who came to Christ later in life, and Her Heart Can See, The Life and Hymns of Fanny J. Crosby by Edith L. Blumhofer.
  • Read the best. There are thousands of Christian books rolling off the press every year. Even if a pastor reads a book per week (as I have attempted to do throughout my ministry) that amounts to a mere fraction of what is being published yearly and does not include the many worthy books from the past. The busy pastor-theologian cannot afford to waste time reading trivia and drivel.
  • Read books that challenge. Books that push us intellectually, and perhaps need careful critique and analysis, should have a constant presence on our reading list.  I attempt to always be reading a difficult work, while giving my brain a break by reading a simpler volume at the same setting. For example, while reading Vanhoozer’s heavy Faith Speaking Understanding, I also was reading a biography about Martin Luther’s wife. While reading Daniel Block’s challenging, For the Glory of God, Recovering a Bible Theology of Worship, I was also reading The Resolution for Men by Stephen and Alex Kendrick. Currently I am reading Him We Proclaim by Dennis Johnson which makes a case for “redemptive-historical” hermeneutics (with which I have several disagreements), while concurrently reading R. C. Sproul’s simple but insightful The Prayer of the Lord.
  • Read the worst. While not enjoyable, it is imperative that pastors know what unbiblical trends are making the rounds, if for no other reason than because at least some of their people are being influenced by them.  It is not enough to know what took place in church history a hundred years ago; we need to know what is taking place now.  Reading popular but doctrinally errant books will also sharpen our discernment skills.  For example, it does not take a biblical scholar to see through the false teaching of Mark Batterson’s The Circle Maker, which unfortunately has recently been making the rounds at several Bible conferences.  But skills developed discerning such works come into play when reading something like N. T. Wright’s extremely popular, but often misguided, Surprised by Hope.  When “reading the worst” I do not want to get side-tracked by authors who have little following.  I want to be on the lookout for those who are having an unbiblical impact on a substantial part of the body of Christ.  And when reading these types of books I also want to be reading an excellent book, so that I avoid becoming too jaded or cynical.
  • Read books predominately, rather than blogs. This will not be well received by my younger readers, who do most of their reading online. But I agree with D. A. Carson who identified two huge shortcomings to getting most of our information from the web: “First, it is so democratized that it is more difficult than ever to distinguish between truth and error, between authoritative opinion and fatuous opinion, between speculation and learning. Second, it swamps us with brief information and opinion; it entices us into endless worthless discussions even on blogs that may themselves be valuable.”[22]
  • Take notes and write reviews or summaries. About 15 years ago I saw the value in writing and publishing reviews of most of the books I read as a help to others.  The fact that the review will be published forces me to be a better reader and better discerner, and to ensure that my comments are backed up by biblical truth.  It usually takes me only a morning or two more to index and write a review.  The index of my notes on the book are typed and pasted in the front of the book, and often placed into my retrieval file system for future use.  The review goes on our website (there are presently over 630), published in journals, such as The Journal of Dispensational Theology, and used by other ministries.  It has been one of the most prominent ways in which my studies have influenced others.
  • It is a valuable discipline to write theology. Writing forces us to sharpen our thinking and crystalize our research and thoughts. While time consuming and often painful, well written material, whether a book review or a critique of a current trend or a doctrinal study, enhances our thinking and makes available to others the fruits of our labors.  But write only if you have the skill and desire to do so, and you can do so with a humble heart, and an ear open to kind criticism from godly peers and friends whom God has surrounded you to help sharpen your biblical perspective, and hold your feet to the fire of scriptural truth.  Such humble servants of God will gladly submit their thoughts to biblically informed peers for honest critique and willingly make adjustments in style and content when needed.


All pastors do not have the same giftedness or interests.  Some are excellent shepherds and love direct involvement with people.  Others could spend all of their time behind closed doors in intense study, or in pursuit of any number of advanced degrees (I had a professor at Moody Bible Institute who had master’s degrees in a number of totally unrelated areas, including engineering, just because he loved to study anything. But he lacked people skills that would have enabled him to be a pastor). A good pastor should have a shepherd’s heart but also a student’s mind. Pastors need to take seriously Paul’s admonition to Timothy, “Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim 2:15).  Still, not every pastor will envision himself as a theologian, although all must be pursuing expertize in both the understanding and the communication of the Scriptures. Many, who lack the skills or interest to move beyond basic theological understanding, nevertheless are often fine pastors who feed and protect the flock with which the Lord has entrusted to them.  My hope, however, is that more pastors will take seriously the need to be pastor-theologians so that God’s people will be spared, as much as possible, the many deceptions that are everywhere, and that they are aided in walking in the light of God’s truth.  After all, with the apostle John, we “have no greater joy than this, to hear of [our] children walking in the truth” (2 John 4).


[1] Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, The Pastor Theologian, Resurrecting an Ancient Vision (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015), p. 33.

[2] Ibid., pp. 37-38.

[3] Ibid., pp. 48-49.

[4] Ibid., p. 49.

[5] Ibid., p. 49.

[6] Ibid., p. 14.

[7] David Well, The Courage to Be Protestant, Truth-Lovers, Marketers, and Emergents in the Postmodern World,   (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2008), p. 40.

[8] John Piper and D. A. Carson, The Pastor as Scholar and the Scholar as Pastor, Reflections on Life and Ministry, (Wheaton: Crossway, 2011).

[9] For a stinging, but I believe accurate, critique of Wright’s scholarship see Gerald Bray’s review found in Gerald Hiestand and Todd Wilson, p. 62.

[10] Ibid., pp. 81-87.

[11] Ibid., p. 83.

[12] Ibid., p. 85.

[13] David Wells, No Place for Truth, or Whatever Happened to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1993), p. 100.

[14] John Piper and D. A. Carson, p. 61.

[15] Dennis Johnson, Him We Proclaim, Preaching Christ from All the Scriptures (Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2007), p. 13.

[16] David Wells, No Place for Truth, p. 6.

[17] See Ibid., p. 221.

[18] R. C. Sproul, The Prayer of the Lord (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2009), p. 101.

[19] Hiestand and Wilson, p. 55.

[20] Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, Performing the Drama of Doctrine (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 20 (emphasis his).

[21] Ibid., p. xiv.

[22] John Piper and D. A. Carson, p. 97.


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